West Virginia’s teachers are refusing to go to school for a fourth day Tuesday in protest of pay that is among the lowest in the nation.
Such statewide strikes are unusual but not unprecedented — West Virginia teachers last walked out in 1990. Most teacher labor disputes start and end at the district level, where teacher salaries are more typically set. The strike in West Virginia has closed schools in all 55 counties.
As the state’s labor unions and lawmakers hash out their differences, here is a look at how teacher pay is decided, what it looks like across states, the legal dilemma teachers face in walking out and why it all matters, especially amid teacher shortages felt by schools around the country:
Q: Why are West Virginia teachers taking up their fight with Republican Gov. Jim Justice and the state Legislature?
A: West Virginia is one of 17 states that use teacher salary schedules, which put state legislatures in charge of setting the pay scale for teachers. In the face of limited or no collective bargaining at the local level, the idea is to make sure that teachers are paid fairly no matter where in the state they teach, which makes it easier for districts to retain their employees.
Q: How much do teachers earn?
A: That depends on where they teach — and it varies widely. The U.S. Education Department’s data show that the average annual salary for K-12 teachers ranged from $42,668 (South Dakota) to $79,637 (New York) in the 2016-17 school year. West Virginia’s average of $45,701 put it near the bottom. Educators there say they have no choice but to consider working in neighboring states that pay significantly more, including Maryland, where the average salary is $66,961, and Ohio, where teachers are paid an average of $57,000. The teachers say the governor’s proposal for minimal raises will not make up for years of stagnant salaries and rising health care costs.
Q: How big of a factor is pay in the teacher shortages that districts are facing? The Education Commission of the States in 2016 reported that fewer high school graduates are going to college to become teachers and those who do enter the profession often leave it. Math and special education teachers are in especially short supply.
A: Compensation is a big part of the profession’s challenges, but not the only one, National Education Association Vice President Becky Pringle said. Policies around standardized testing continue to dampen the joy around teaching, she said, along with proposals to lower standards so that people other than highly trained professionals can teach.
“We don’t go into the profession for the big bucks,” Pringle said. “We go into the profession because we love children, we love students and we want to try to do our best to make a difference in their lives and help them be successful. But we do also have our own families, ourselves, to take care of so salaries and benefits, the compensation of teachers is a huge part of whether or not, not only can we attract teachers but can we retain them.”
Q: Can teachers legally go on strike?
A: The rules vary among states. At least half of all states prohibit public employees from going on strike while other states allow strikes under certain circumstances. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said last week that the teachers’ work stoppage there was unlawful and the governor has not ruled out seeking a court injunction to force the teachers back to work.
Q: Are teachers in other states dissatisfied to the point they may follow West Virginia’s lead and walk out?
A: Teachers in Oklahoma last week floated the idea of a walkout to get the attention of lawmakers who are considering cuts to public schools after failing to reach a deal on tax increases that would have given teachers a $5,000 pay raise. On Monday, the Pittsburgh teacher’s union said its members would go on strike for the first time in 40 years unless an agreement could be reached on issues including smaller class sizes. St. Paul, Minnesota, teachers narrowly averted a strike earlier this month after negotiations went down to the wire.
Teachers and their unions all over the country are fed up with salaries that have not kept pace with other professions and the erosion of benefits, Pringle said.